Grizzlies' paint play is key to prolonging series with Thunder
The last time the Oklahoma City Thunder were in the second round, they were the Seattle SuperSonics. That was back in 2005, when San Antonio wiped them out in six games. The Thunder/Sonics franchise has not advanced past the second round since 1996.
That could change on Friday in Memphis. With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook leading the way, the young Thunder are one victory away from joining the Dallas Mavericks in the conference finals. Here are five things to watch for as Oklahoma City tries to close out the Grizzlies in Game 6:
"I don't think fatigue was the issue," Grizzlies center Marc Gasol said after Memphis' 99-72 beating in Game 5. Uh, sure looked like it, Marc. After totaling 60 points and 37 rebounds in a whopping 113 minutes in the Game 4 triple-overtime thriller, Gasol and Zach Randolph combined for 24 points and 12 rebounds on Wednesday. Power is the name of the game in Memphis, and if the Grizzlies' potent frontcourt duo isn't at its best, this team will have a hard time finding enough points to match Oklahoma City.
Westbrook (11 points, six assists, three turnovers) wasn't great in Game 5, but he took fewer shots (10) than Durant (14), which is usually a positive for the Thunder. An under control Westbrook is dangerous: He can break down Memphis' first line of defense with ease and can turn a collapsing defense into open shots for his teammates. Where Westbrook goes off the reservation is when he becomes trigger-happy, ignoring his teammates (Durant, in particular) and playing one-on-five basketball. Problem is, there is no telling which Westbrook will show up. A level-headed Westbrook has a major advantage over Mike Conley; a reckless Westbrook could shoot Memphis back into the series.
Oklahoma City has resisted sending double teams to the post for most of the series. But in Game 5, it routinely ran a second defender at Randolph and Gasol, daring the Grizzlies to beat it from the outside. They didn't. The top shooting trio of Conley, Tony Allen and O.J. Mayo shot a combined 10-of-38 from the floor, including 2-of-7 from three-point range. If this defensive strategy continues -- and given how effective it was, there is no reason to think it won't -- Memphis' season could hinge on its ability to knock down perimeter shots. That's not its strength. The Grizzlies ranked 27th in three-point shooting (33.4 percent) during the regular season.
Young legs and home-court advantage certainly helped Oklahoma City overcome its fatigue from Game 4. But a steady bench didn't hurt, either. The Thunder got 53 points from their subs, who outscored the Grizzlies' starting lineup by eight points. Meanwhile, Memphis' bench chipped in just 27 points, an utterly unproductive unit that could not take any pressure off the starters. When Memphis wins, its reserves -- Darrell Arthur on pick-and-pops, Mayo firing threes off drive-and-kicks -- usually play well. They will need to play big on Friday to keep the starters from wearing down late in the game.
This is not the Perkins the Thunder expect to see next year. Recovering from two knee injuries has left Perkins a little overweight and robbed him of much of his mobility. But Perkins is still Oklahoma City's best chance at containing Gasol in the paint and his leadership on defense is a critical part of the team's success. The Thunder needed Perkins for only 23 minutes in the Game 5 blowout. They will likely need him for a lot longer if they want to close out this series in Memphis.